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The Dirty Money Dilemma

Deciding whether to accept or reject a donation from a controversial source

In 1978, The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its Sackler Wing with profuse gratitude to the Sackler family, whose multimillion-dollar donation made the addition possible. The Sacklers had made their money primarily through a privately held pharmaceutical company called Purdue Pharma and had already given away enough by that time to be sought-after benefactors in the art world. To celebrate the opening of the Sackler Wing, the US ambassador to Egypt unveiled a new collection of Egyptian artifacts from Tutankhamen’s tomb and the Martha Graham Dance Company performed. The Sackler donation was the first of many over the decades, and each enabled the museum to further expand its public offerings.

Forty years later, in 2018, protesters gathered inside the same Sackler Wing, brandishing black banners that read “Shame on Sackler.” They dumped hundreds of empty prescription bottles on the floor to symbolize Purdue Pharma’s role in fueling a national opioid epidemic that continues to claim tens of thousands of overdose deaths annually. They staged a die-in on the museum floor, demanding that The Met stop accepting Sackler donations. In court, the US Justice Department and the attorney general in several states alleged that Purdue Pharma had intentionally withheld information about the addictive nature of its signature drug, Oxycontin.

In 2019, the protesters appeared to prevail. The Met issued a public letter saying it would no longer accept donations from the Sackler family. The Met’s president, Daniel H. Weiss, reminded the public that the museum was not a political institution and did not have a formal litmus test for donors. Nevertheless, he justified the decision by saying, “We feel it’s necessary to step away from gifts that are not in the public interest or in our institution’s interest.” The New York Times ran an op-ed by philanthropy critic Anand Giridharadas commending the Met’s decision, declaring that “nonprofits should not allow themselves to be used by the wealthy to scrub their consciences.” Other museums, including the Tate in London, followed suit with public statements that it would no longer accept the Sacklers’ donations. Most recently, the Met opted to remove the Sackler name from the wing the family funded. Despite the Sackler’s multibillion-dollar fortune, museums have judged the Sacklers’ philanthropy as more trouble than it is worth.

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